Looking at Archaeology’s Past
As a widely recognized scholarly endeavor, archaeology has a fairly brief history, extending little more than about 150 years into the past. It has been recognized as a profession for only a few decades. These time frames are somewhat arbitrary, however, and even a cursory examination of the history of archaeology shows that many of the ideas and discoveries upon which the discipline is based come from the distant past, from various fields of study, and from around the globe (even though archaeology has traditionally been considered to be a product of European intellectual history and thought). This chapter provides an overview of some of the most significant historical events in the emergence and ongoing development of archaeology.
After studying this chapter, students should be able to
- outline the history of archaeology.
- identify the ancient origins of archaeology.
- discuss the beginnings of modern archaeology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
- identify the key developments of archaeology in the twentieth century
- discuss the differences between processual and post-processual archaeology.
- describe the principal contributions of each of the people mentioned in the chapter
- define all the glossary terms found in the chapter
antiquarians – Hobby collectors of ancient art and antiquities, particularly from ancient Greece and Rome. (p.31)
culture anthropology – The branch of anthropology focusing on contemporary human cultures. (p.37)
culture history – A description of the archaeological record and the chronological sequence of events in an area. (p. 35)
culture process – How cultures work, including how and why they change. (p.42)
culture reconstruction – An interpretation of past lifeways, including subsistence and settlement patterns, social and political strategies, and ideology. (p.42)
cuneiform – An early form of writing found in Mesopotamia. (p.30)
decolonization – Refers to attempts to radically transform the discipline of anthropology by privileging the voices and discourses of people historically on the periphery of the field and from cultures that have been written about by anthropologists and colonized in the past. Indigenous archaeology is an example of decolonizing practice. See also post-colonial archaeology. (p.47)
diffusion – The spread of ideas. (p.38)
digital archaeology – Digital archaeology involves both the use and critical analysis of technology in archaeology. Many digital archaeologists emphasize the importance of using free, opensource software and of democratizing data; this means that archaeologists share their findings and data sets on public accessible websites, in online databases, and using non-proprietary software. Finally, many digital archaeologists also believe in using technologies that are inclusive so that people of all skill levels and backgrounds can understand and access information about the past. (p.46)
hieroglyphics – The pictorial form of writing used by ancient Egyptians. (p.34)
high-level research – Archaeological studies that focus on explaining significant events in the human past and the nature of culture in general; also known as grand theory and general theory. (p.43)
historical particularism – The conceptual framework that suggests the evolutionary course of every culture is unique, disregarding any general laws of cultural evolution. (p.37)
law of superposition – In undeformed sequences of sedimentary rock, each bed is older than the one above it. It is recognized that deformation can fold or overturn sedimentary layers, placing them out of sequence, and that rock can also form from rising magma, making deep layers younger than those above. (p.31)
low-level research – This generally refers to archaeological field and laboratory work. (p.43)
middle-level research – : Refers to research that links field and laboratory work with the grand theories. It focuses on interpreting patterning in archaeological sites, primarily through ethnoarchaeology, experimental archaeology, and studies of taphonomy; also known as middle-range research and middle-range theory. (p.42)
new archaeology – Also known as processual archaeology, it emerged in the 1960s and focused on using explicit scientific method, attempting to explain (rather than merely describe) culture change. Although common in the 1960s and 1970s, the phrase “new archaeology” is rarely used in the early twenty-first century. (p.42)
papyri – The writing material produced from plants in ancient Egypt. (p.35)
postmodernism – A conceptual framework, generally considered anti-scientific in nature, focusing on the subjectivity of interpretation. (p.43)
post-colonial archaeology – Post-colonial archaeology refers to attempts to radically transform anthropology and archaeology by privileging the voices from people historically on the periphery of the field and from cultures that have been written about by anthropologists and colonized in the past. See also decolonization and Indigenous archaeology. (p.46)
post-processual archaeology – An umbrella phrase for archaeology done since the 1980s in scholarly but non-traditional ways, often focusing on topics of ideology, gender, and ethnicity, and explicitly recognizing bias in the undertaking and exploitation of archaeological research. (p.43)
prehistory – The time before written records were kept in an area. The prehistoric period ends at different times around the world, distinguished by when the inhabitants invented writing or when people with the knowledge of writing entered the area. (p.40)
processual archaeology – Also known as the new archaeology, it emerged in the 1960s and focused on using explicit scientific method, attempting to explain (rather than merely describe) culture change. (p.42)
provenience – The precise, three-dimensional location of an artifact. (p.37)
public archaeology – In its broadest definition, public archaeology is the study of how archaeologists engage the public. A central component of public archaeology is collaborating with different stakeholder groups to identify and investigate questions of mutual interest. (p.46)
punk archaeology – While adhering to methods and ethics of professional archaeology, punk archaeology operates on the fringes or margins of mainstream archaeology, critiques scholarly convention, often takes a do-it-yourself approach, and tends to focus on the very recent past. (p.46)
radiocarbon dating – An absolute dating technique based on the known rate of decay of carbon-14 in organisms after death. Also known as C-14 and carbon-14 dating. (p.40)
stratigraphy – The description or study of the observable layers of sediments. (p.32)
three-age system – Conceptualizing the past through the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages. (p.29)
uniformitarianism – A geological principle often articulated as “the present is the key to the past,” meaning that the geological processes in operation today are the same as those that operated in the past. The implication is that since most geological processes are relatively slow, the earth must be very old. (p.34)
unilinear theory of cultural evolution – A theory developed in the nineteenth century that proposed cultural evolution was on a singular course and people in various stages of that course could be classified as either savages, barbarians, or civilized. (p.36)
History of Archaeology (General)
Bahn, Paul, ed. 2014. The History of Archaeology: An Introduction. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.
Fagan, Brian M. 2018. A Little History of Archaeology: An Introduction. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Trigger, Bruce. 2006. A History of Archaeological Thought. New York: Cambridge University Press.
History of Archaeology (United States)
Kehoe, Alice Beck. 1998. The Land of Prehistory: A Critical History of American Archaeology. New York: Routledge.
O’Brien, Michael, R. Lee Lyman, and Michael Brian Schiffer. 2005. Archaeology as Process: Processualism and Its Progeny. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.
History of Archaeology (Canada)
Kelley, Jane H., and Ronald F. Williamson. 1996. "The Positioning of Archaeology within Anthropology: A Canadian Historical Perspective." American Antiquity 61 (1): 5–20.
Caraher, William, Kostis Kourelis, and Andres Reinhard, eds. 2014. Punk Archaeology Grand Forks: Digital Press of North Dakota.
Richardson, Lorna-Jane. 2017 "I’ll Give You ‘Punk Archaeology,’ Sunshine." Archaeology 49 (3): 306–17.
Atalay, Sonya. 2006. "Indigenous Archaeology as Decolonizing Practice." American Indian Quarterly 30 (3/4): 280–310.
Atalay, Sonya, Lee Rains Clauss, Randall H. McGuire, and John R. Welch, eds. 2014. Transforming Archaeology: Activist Practices and Prospects. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
Gonzalez, Sara L., Ian Kretzler, and Briece Edwards. 2018. "Imagining Indigenous and Archaeological Futures: Building Capacity with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde." Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress 14 (1): 85–114.
TrowelBlazers is a celebration of women archaeologists, paleontologists and geologists who have been doing awesome work for far longer, and in far greater numbers, than most people realize.
Rosetta Stone. This link is from the British Museum, where the Rosetta Stone is currently located.
King Tut/Tutankhamen. This link is from the Griffith Institute at Oxford University, UK, and includes records of the excavation.
Each of the following sites is on the list of World Heritage Sites maintained by UNESCO, except Rosetta, which is on the tentative list. The links lead to the descriptions, which include photos and the rationale for its designation a World Heritage Site. Where the official UNESCO designation differs from the name in the chapter, the UNESCO description is provided in parentheses.